If you ever spend any time with me, you quickly learn not to expect much from me during the two weeks every two years when the Olympics are on. I simply refuse to budge from my TV. (I cannot thank the cable/satellite/Internet companies enough for providing me all-day-everyday coverage. So much better than when I was I kid and it was only on for a couple of hours on the weekend. Enablers, all of you, but I love it.) For years I couldn’t identify why I was such a junkie, but I’ve finally figured it out.
First, there’s the obvious. I love sports. I’ve run marathons, played basketball, softball, tennis, soccer, and field hockey. For years, I was a figure skater. I’ve tried archery, riflery, sailing, gymnastics, fencing, golf, swimming, water polo, and volleyball. Anything I haven’t played, I’m at least conversant in the rules. (Except for cricket. That one just eludes me.) The attraction of the Olympics is, partly, the chance to see all of these sports, especially the obscure ones, competed at the highest levels.
But the real attraction is the stories, not only of the athletes, but also the Games themselves. Every Games has a unique feel. They are a reflection of the host nation and of their times. We’ve gone from parades of staid athletes entering the stadiums to flag waving athletes wielding selfie sticks. Athletes have evolved from hiding in quiet corners in order to focus to wearing huge headphones around the arena. Sports have come and gone, with newer, “cooler” sports being added and sometimes replacing older sports that no longer garner attention.
Times change and every Olympics reflects those times. Usually you see the best of the times, but occasionally you see the worst, such as when there are boycotts and terrorism. You hope for a reflection of the best, but the negative events tell stories, too.
Every Games has those significant, poignant moments that you look back on years down the road and say, “I remember that.” (Or maybe I’m the only nut who tracks the events of her life in conjunction with the Games. Barcelona? I was living overseas that summer. Atlanta? I went out and waited for the torch relay to pass my house. Sochi? I adopted our dog. Lillehammer? I got my first “real” job during that one. And so on.)
But more than the Games, there are the stories of the athletes. Like much of popular culture, there are always the people that everyone knows. It’s more fun to watch the ones that no one knows. There are always tales of courage, epic quests, upsets and underdogs, and overcoming incredible odds. There are lessons in perseverance and discipline. As a writer, I create characters and put them through all kinds of obstacles. But these athletes are real people, and many of them have gone through things that even my imagination couldn’t come up with! It’s a lesson in character development, as well as plot.
There are the athletes that appear in so many Games that you think they’ll always be there and then, when they retire, you feel their absence. You watch them grow up and then, when time catches up and retirement looms, you feel sad (and old, if they are your age). And there’s joy, too. You can’t help but be happy for the kid who had no chance but who makes the medal stand. You feel joy when the athlete who’s clearly just there to participate turns in a personal best performance and celebrates like she’s won a medal.
Yes, the Olympics may be corrupt and they certainly aren’t living up to the ideal under which they were created. There’s no denying that the IOC has some serious problems. There are also serious problems with doping and cheating in some sports. The Games are over-commercialized. Politics usually sticks its ugly nose in there somewhere, too, ruining what is supposed to be a time of neutrality.
But it’s the stories that bring me in every year. It’s like reading a book with tons of chapters on many different subjects. There are the happy chapters, the sad chapters, and the unbelievable chapters. Like a great book, it’s a chance to escape from reality and drudgery. We get to see and experience things that we’d never get to experience personally. Most of us will never be Olympic athletes, but for just two weeks we get to vicariously enjoy that experience, even if only a little bit. And this is why I’m hooked. I’m a storyteller and an athlete and the Olympics are the perfect combination of the two. I want to watch the competition and lose myself in the stories.
Now, excuse me, but I’ve got to get back to the TV.